What happens to a performer whose contract ends just as they become the most famous and beloved person on the planet? They get tremendous artistic control and an obscene amount of money.
When Chaplin signed another one-year contract, this time with the Mutual Film Corporation, he got his own production company and studio, and near complete control. “I am left free to be just as funny as I dare,” he told a journalist [source: Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Charlie Chaplin]. Between a $10,000 weekly salary and a very large signing bonus, he received $670,000 (about 16 million in 2018), making him the highest-paid employee in the world. He was able to bring along from Essanay such favorite collaborators as cameraman Roland Totheroh and leading lady Edna Purviance. No wonder Chaplin once called his time at Mutual the happiest of his professional life.
This is the fifth entry in my Chaplin Diary, where I’m surveying all the films directed by Charlie Chaplin in chronological order. So let’s consider his first four Mutual films. I watched them off the Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies Blu-ray set.
Chaplin set his first Mutual in a department store. The melodramatic story, involving embezzlement, gets well underway before Charlie comes on screen. The laughs begin with his entrance, as he shaves and grooms himself, in the store, using shaving cream, brushes, and cologne that you know he will never buy. He soon goes from bad customer to bad employee, set up as the patsy in the embezzlement scheme.
That crooked boss is played by Eric Campbell – the best heavy Chaplin ever had. Huge, hulking, and constantly scowling, he always looks like someone to avoid.Campbell would be a major part of the Mutuals.
The gags build and land beautifully. Chaplin and a lookalike do a mirror routine, with both wondering if they’re looking at their own reflection (even though the “lookalike” is at least six inches taller than Chaplin). Campbell chases a dancing Charlie around an office, then chases him down an up escalator, so that they’re running like crazy without getting anywhere.
It’s a very funny short.
Years ago, I concluded that all of Chaplin’s Mutuals are gems. I was wrong. The Fireman offers a few good laughs, but not enough, and nothing of interest in the story. Among the best moments: The alarm interrupts a checkers game, so Charlie silences the alarm. He also heroically climbs a building to save Edna. The climb isn’t particularly funny, but it’s impressive because you can see that it’s really Chaplin doing the stunt.
Now this one really is a gem, and a major step in Chaplin’s movement to mix pathos with comedy.
We see Charlie’s shoes and unique walk before we see the whole man. That’s enough; he had the most recognizable walk in the world. Here Charlie is a street musician, playing the violin (Chaplin’s own instrument) for coins in and outside a saloon. He wanders from town to country, where he saves Edna from evil gypsies (even Chaplin couldn’t always avoid racism), then loses her to a younger, more handsome man.
Chaplin had a talent for making audiences see a prop as something other than what it was. He does it brilliantly here, using an old shirt for a table cloth. He folds the sleeves so that they look like napkins in a fine restaurant.
By now, Chaplin was becoming an excellent film actor. The emotions on his face are subtle, realistic, and expressive. The Vagabond is a near perfect combination of gags and pathos.
Somewhat of an experiment, Chaplin’s fourth Mutual is almost a solo performance. Only one other actor, Albert Austin, appears in the movie, and only briefly at the beginning.
Once again, Chaplin skips the tramp and does his rich drunk routine. Horribly soused, he has trouble getting into his house, getting up the stairs, and getting into bed – apparently all of which are Herculean tasks. There’s a lot of very funny stuff here, but the movie has a lot of missteps, as well, such as the dreadful intertitles that try to be funny.
The experiment failed, but it taught Chaplin a lesson. He avoided joke intertitles for the rest of his silent career.